Career and technical educators encourage business owners and professionals to get involved

Thursday, January 28, 2021

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While growing up, Vojtech Morgan, 17, learned how to cook from his mother and decided early on to work toward becoming a chef at a high-end restaurant.

“I like preparing food for people and seeing the smile on their face,” Morgan said. “You can turn someone’s day around by cooking them a meal.”

Thanks to the county’s robust career and technical education (CTE) ecosystem, Morgan is getting a head start on his career goal.

He’s enrolled in the Culinary Arts Program at the Northwest Career & Technical Academy (NCTA) in Mount Vernon while also attending Burlington-Edison High School.

Morgan’s path toward becoming career-ready is exactly what CTE programs across the county aim to do, said Sedro-Woolley High School CTE Director Jerry Grisham. Traditionally, students would get a diploma and either go to work or college.

“Now, instead of career exploration in college or after high school, students get started in 8th grade,” Grisham said.

Six school districts and the Northwest Career & Technical Academy (NCTA) make up the CTE ecosystem in Skagit County, with each school district offering their own CTE classes. The NCTA acts as a CTE hub for the school districts, offering courses to any student in the county no matter what school district they attend.

CTE classes are designed to help students explore careers and to further prepare students for a career, to receive a certification, or to set a path for college, said NCTA Director Lynette Brower. For instance, high school students can earn a nursing assistant certification to get a jump start in working in healthcare. Other examples of courses offered in Skagit County include learning environmental science, publishing, real estate, computer programming, and much more.

“Our work in CTE in part helps set workplace expectations, how to interact with adults and learning soft skills,” Brower said. “Our young people have amazing skills. There is nothing more powerful than watching these young people fly.”

Currently, there is an effort among the county’s CTE directors and NCTA to work more collaboratively to benefit the students as well as local employers. Part of that effort is reaching out to local career experts and businesses to support CTE programs in their respective fields. Learning from experts, said Brower, is one of the most impactful ways to reach students.

Dianna Chonka, General Manager of North Harbor Diesel in Anacortes, has supported CTE programs in Skagit County for years and regularly employs high school students as apprentices. They also allow students to job shadow, provide tours for classes, and provide equipment for students to tear apart and learn.

Chonka, who serves on the advisory committees for both Skagit Valley College and NCTA’s marine programs, said it’s important to maintain interest in the profession among students to ensure the long-term viability of the industry.

“If everything goes to perfect plan, we may get a fulltime employee out of this training, but that’s not really our goal,” Chonka said. “We enjoy supporting students and offering these opportunities and stand firm behind these high school CTE programs.”

Burlington-Edison District Nurse Tessa McIlraith, who serves on the NCTA Applied Medical Sciences Advisory Board, supports CTE programs in a number of ways, including through job shadowing, advising on curriculum and reviewing program outcomes.

She said CTE opportunities are vital to Skagit County in many ways.

“Some of our students and families don’t have parents that graduated high school or college,” McIlraith said. “Some students can be really successful in hands-on career opportunities, like welding or nursing or in culinary school. I see students who have struggled in the traditional high school setting and when they take our CTE classes at Burlington-Edison High School or NCTA, they find a joy and passion you don’t see in a regular classroom.”

Involvement in Skagit County CTE programs – whether you run a business or are an individual with professional skills who wants to give back – doesn’t have to be as intensive as the previous two examples.

For instance, one could join a class as a guest speaker, judge an event, conduct a mock interview, or be a career mentor, among many other opportunities.

Grisham said that volunteers who come to visit classrooms are often surprised by students’ level of engagement.“You can walk into any CTE program and the adult can ask any kid, ‘What are you working on and why?’ Any kid in those classes has the answer. They communicate with adults on another level. You can see their pride. It’s tangible.”

Cameron Kapan, who graduated from Sedro-Woolley High School in 2020 and who now works at Les Schwab, fondly remembers working his way through CTE automotive courses in Sedro-Woolley and further course work at NCTA. He learned jobs skills from his instructor as well as from working professionals who volunteered their time, especially the local Harley Davidson crew.

“It was a breathtaking experience,” Kapan said. “It was hours of working on cars and getting your hands dirty all day.”

The county’s CTE program directors encourage anyone interested in becoming involved with CTE learning to contact info@skagitcte.org to get started.

“Volunteers and community partners help make our CTE programs stronger,” Brower said. “You can help benefit these students and the industry in which you work.”

Morgan’s head start toward his culinary career is a good example of CTE success in action. In his two-period culinary course at NCTA, he has learned good knife skills, keeping his kitchen clean and more. His training has also helped him land a job at the fine-dining restaurant Oyster Bar in Bow, where he preps food in the kitchen and washes dishes.

“It’s a great experience and I have great mentors,” Morgan said.

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